The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Japanese companies are famous for demanding long work hours. Many employees fear leaving the office before their boss, fathers hesitate to take paternity leave, and, generally, workers leave half their vacation days unused. This culture of overwork is good neither for the company nor the employee, and businesses are starting to take notice. While some are introducing flexible schedules, others are challenging the traditional workweek itself.

Windows to Productivity
Earlier this year, Microsoft Japan trialed a new approach that cut the workweek from five days to four. Workstyle innovation, the company says, is at the core of its management strategy, and Microsoft Japan employees enjoy a variety of flexible options designed to fit their life circumstances. Microsoft calls this Work–Life Choice.

In August, the company carried out its Work–Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer trial campaign. As part of the experiment, they asked employees to increase productivity and creativity while maintaining a healthy work–life balance. The company covered some leisure-related expenses and workers were encouraged to travel with family, engage in activities to help the community, and find other ways to relax and enjoy the time off.

Fewer days in the workweek also meant fewer meetings: their times were cut in half and attendance was limited to five employees. In a July 2019 blog post, Microsoft Japan said that meetings are often called without a clear reason, and that there is hardly ever cause for one to last an hour—especially when there are so many web-based tools and apps that enable collaboration.

A Microsoft Japan representative told The ACCJ Journal that the company has been implementing flexible policies, such as remote work, since 2007. “When we analyzed workstyles across the company, we found that our Japanese employees spend 24 percent more time on email and 31 percent more people get looped into these communications. Also, 17 percent more time is spent on meetings, which have 11 percent more attendees.

“Japanese employees spend four hours or more each week dealing with email or in meetings. We realized that there is room to improve productivity and decided to implement a company-wide policy that would give everyone a chance to evaluate their own.”

On October 31, the results of the trial were revealed:

  • 40-percent boost in productivity
  • 60 percent fewer pages printed
  • 23-percent drop in electricity cost

The trial also generated a great deal of good PR for Microsoft Japan, and their willingness to test a shorter workweek in a country where working long hours is venerated—and work–life balance remains largely marginalized—has Japan’s workforce excited about the future.

“We released the results of our experiment because we hope our clients can gain some insights into their own workstyle reform,” said the Microsoft Japan representative.

PHOTO: Discovery Japan, Inc

Flexible Japan?
Even with such a prominent corporation showing the clear benefits of a four-day workweek, deviating from the standard will be challenging. Yet, something must be done. The damaging effects of Japan’s workplace culture are staggering. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare estimates that 200 deaths each year can be attributed to overworking. More than 20 percent of people work more than 49 hours per week. In particularly serious cases, the number of hours surpasses 100.

Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace and author of Back to Human believes this could be contributing to Japan’s declining birthrate. “There are now more deaths in Japan than births, and part of that has to do with the work culture,” he told The ACCJ Journal.

Japan’s workers, he said, are simply burned out. Men and women who struggle to maintain a full-time position in one of the country’s competitive companies have no time for a family.

According to Schawbel, a third of the global workforce wants a four-day workweek, but corporations must be pushed to change the standard. “I do think that more companies will adopt a four-day workweek,” he said. “But unless there’s a government mandate, I don’t see it gaining widespread adoption.”

Output Matters
While not going so far as to adopt a four-day workweek, many leading companies in Japan are implementing flexible policies such as custom schedules, job sharing, extended paid leave, and remote work. They understand that skilled laborers have options, and a company with flexible policies is more attractive than one without.

In 2018, Visa Worldwide (Japan) Co., Ltd., started offering flexible hours to meet requests from employees, especially working mothers. “It is still in an early stage after implemen­tation, but we can see that more and more employees—not only working mothers, but working fathers and employees with aging parents—are benefiting from this new system to achieve work–life balance,” said Jennifer Dyanne Fong, director of client relationship management.

Visa employees can also choose to work remotely, which is especially attractive in Japan, where long commutes are the norm. “While flexible hours and working from home might seem antiquated if you are coming from other countries, in Japan it is pretty transformational when you think about the commutes, the natural disasters that actually happen, and the mental health of people working long hours,” she added.

Working remotely has quickly become one of the most valu­able flexibility practices. According to business service provider IWG plc, 70 percent of people around the globe work remotely at least once a week.

“Remote work has become more common, and employees are selecting employers that have flexible work policies that allow them to do that,” said Schawbel.

Fong explained: “The focus has not necessarily been on being in the office, but on the output.” Knowing that—especially in the Tokyo metropolitan area—it takes quite a bit of time to get to your workplace, why would you have to think about commuting and having that time when you can do as much or more work from home?”

Akemi Matsui, Visa’s analyst for client relationship mana­gement, agrees with Fong. “We focus more on productivity, not hours. Depending on the lifestyle, it is more important that you have working flexibility, so you have better output. To support the growth of the business, we respect each person’s lifestyle and the way they work best. That way, we get the best sustain­able outcome for the company.”

Agile Working
Another company that has made sweeping changes is Discovery Japan, Inc. Employees are only required to be at the office during the block of hours they have designated as their core time. Outside of that, they are free to work remotely. “You can work from anywhere at any time,” said Yui Weiwei, advisor of human resources. “It is very convenient for women with children.”

Weiwei explained that their new flexibility policy—which they call “agile working”—originated at global headquarters. At first, the Japanese staff did not know how to react. The new policy not only incorporated flexible hours but also dropped assigned seating. “Our general manager encouraged the team leader to change seats every day. The regular staff followed.”

Discovery is also tackling overtime through worker allo­cation. “We sometimes have to work overtime, but we all have families,” Weiwei said. “Now, we collect data. How many hours does an employee work in a month? We analyze it and, finally, request a new headcount to improve the situation.”

By spreading around the work, employees do not feel over­whelmed or as if they must work longer.

While Discovery has no plans to implement a four-day workweek, Weiwei says that they and Microsoft have the same goal: improving employees’ work–life balance.

A Few Good Hours
According to a September survey by cloud-based software com­pany Mavenlink Inc., 62 percent of the 1,002 full-time employees polled said work–life balance is the most important aspect of a company’s culture. This new data mirrors closely that of the 31st Short-Term Survey of Workers, conducted in May 2016 by the Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards in Japan. That research found that 63.5 percent of Japanese workers want their personal lives to be a higher priority.

It’s no surprise that studies show that poor work–life balance can lead to outcomes such as depression, weight gain, as well as increased smoking and drinking. Overwork may also cause employees to make more errors and to experience decreased productivity and medical problems—all of which can affect a company’s bottom line.

Companies testing four-day workweeks, however, consistently report decreased stress, as well as increased job satisfaction and productivity. New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian reported a 20-percent increase in productivity from its 250 employees after a trial run of four-day workweeks. The trust company made the policy permanent last October.

In another example, Glasgow-based telephone and digital marketing business Pursuit Marketing has increased productivity of its 120-person staff by nearly 30 percent over the two years since it switched to four-day workweeks.

The reason for these productivity increases, proponents say, is that a four-day workweek forces employees to be more productive in a shorter time frame. In the case of Microsoft, the company was counting on this.

“We wanted employees to ‘rest well and learn well’ over a three-day weekend,” said Microsoft. “We expected that employees would be conscientious of their productively level and remain creative even after switching back to a five-day workweek.”

With such obvious advantages, why are more companies not adopting four-day workweeks? According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, less than seven percent of major companies in Japan offer four-day workweeks; and those who do find that employees are not participating. Experts believe this is partly due to a fear that they will fall out of favor with management compared with those who work five days.

Clearly, cultural change will have to accompany policy change—and that could be a hard sell in Japan.

PHOTO: Discovery Japan, Inc

On the Horizon
The idea of shorter workweeks may take time to catch on, but it is something that will certainly be kept on the drawing board. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games quickly approaching, the government has asked companies to consider more flexible work options—ideally remote work or shorter days. In line with this request, Microsoft Japan intends to offer four-day workweeks again in August 2020.

They have no immediate plans to make the policy permanent but will end this year with another experiment: Work–Life Choice Challenge 2019 Winter. This time, instead of being given four-day workweeks, employees will have the option to combine annual leave with the end-of-the-year holidays. The company still recommends limiting meetings to 30 minutes.

The question remains whether four-day workweeks will ever replace the status quo in Japan. At this point, it seems unlikely. But the fact that companies such as Microsoft, Visa, and Discovery are going to such lengths to improve their employees’ work–life balance is a giant leap in the right direction. Finally, the reality of how work and life intermingle is being acknowledged.

Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, LLC, sums it up aptly in his book Deep Work:

“Very few people work even eight hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, inter­ruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.” 

Aaron Baggett is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.